The Not-So-Democratic Democracy Monument

Democracy Monument

Democracy Monument

At the end of a turbulent decade, the ruling Thai government of the time decided to pay homage to the 1932 coup d’état – which brought about the end of absolute monarchy – by constructing a large symbolic monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road. The foundation stone of Democracy Monument was laid down in 1939, the same year that the country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand. At the time, the country was under the rule of military dictator, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, whose fascist leanings were outlined when he signed a pact with the Japanese and declared war on the United States of America and Great Britain. Phibun, who was educated in France, compared Democracy Monument to the Arc de Triomphe, and said that it represented a new Westernized and cultured Bangkok. During a cabinet meeting of August 30, 1939, he said:

“We must be as cultured as other nations otherwise no country will come to contact us. Or if they come, they come as superiors. Thailand would be helpless and soon become colonized. But if we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves.”

In order to make way for Democracy Monument, local residents were evicted from their homes and businesses at short notice. It should be no surprise, then, that the building of the monument was highly unpopular and not only did many people lose their homes and livelihoods, hundreds of shade trees were cut down to make space for a ceremonial boulevard. Considering Bangkok’s torrid heat, and lack of air-conditioning at the time, shade trees were an important part of everyday life.

Democracy Monument under construction

Democracy Monument under construction

Democracy Monument was designed by Mew Aphaiwong, an architect who had ties to Phibun. The Italian sculptor, Corrado Feroci, executed the relief sculptures around the base of the monument. The relief sculptures, however, are not an accurate representation of the events that occurred on June 24, 1932, and are rife with propaganda. The armed forces are depicted as saviours of the nation, bringing about democracy as a united force for the benefit of the people. Civilians appear only as grateful recipients of the fortitude of the armed forces, when in actual fact the coup was carried out by both civilians and the military. In the panel titled “Soldiers Fighting for Democracy”, the military are shown engaged in a battle for “democracy”, though the coup was bloodless and no fighting took place.

Soldiers Fighting for Democracy - Democracy Monument

Soldiers Fighting for Democracy

The monument itself is highly symbolic. Four large wing-like structures surround the central turret, upon which sits a carved representation of the constitution. These wings represent the four branches of the Thai armed forces which carried out the 1932 coup. Each one of these wings is 24 metres high, marking the fact that the coup took place on June 24. The central turret stands three metres high, representing the month of June, the third month of the traditional Thai calendar. The turret has six gates which represent the six policies of the Phibun regime: independence, internal peace, equality, freedom, economy and education.

Today, Democracy Monument stands isolated on a traffic island, almost impossible to reach due to the heavy Bangkok traffic. Thai people are starkly unaware of what really happened on that fateful day in 1932. As has often been the case in Thailand’s history, events pertaining to politics and the monarchy have been erased from memory or glorified. If you manage to dodge the relentless traffic, take some time to appreciate the relief sculptures and design of Democracy Monument, if for no other reason than to confirm the propagandistic nature of its design and reflect on the undemocratic way in which in which it was realised. If you can’t get that close, you could always take a seat opposite, like the woman in this picture. I wonder what she was thinking.

Democracy  Monument in every day life

Democracy Monument in every day life

See more pictures of Democracy Monument on my image blog Siamese Visions.


Off the Tourist Trail in Bangkok: King Prajadhipok Museum

For the foreign residents of Bangkok, sightseeing around Rattanakosin Island doesn’t seem like so much fun once you’ve been here for a few years. The place is jam packed with tourists, cheap souvenirs (that Thai people never buy), and insane tuk tuk drivers who charge us triple rate, just because we’ve got round eyes and a big nose. It seems that there is nowhere where you can escape the clamour of tourist mania. However, there are a few places that offer a quiet retreat from the noise and heat of Bangkok’s “spiritual heart” and one of my favourite is the King Prajadhipok Museum.

Map of Rattanakosin Island - the tourist centre and "spiritual heart" of Bangkok

The Museum

Located at the Phanfa Bridge intersection, the museum is housed in a three-storey registered heritage building, not far from Democracy Monument. It was built in the early 20th century by a French-Swiss architect, Charles Beguelin, and has served numerous purposes over the years. It became the Prajadhipok Museum in 2001. The museum was formerly housed in the basement of the Secretariat Building but moved to the Public Works Department after the King Prajadhipok’s Institute took over the role of management. In 1980, the king’s wife – Queen Rhambai Barni – donated a large number of authentic personal items such as reading glasses, photographs and memoirs.

King Prajadhipok Museum

King Prajadhipok

The various exhibitions inside the museum guide you through the life and reign of King Prajadhipok, from his coronation in 1926, through to his eventual abdication in England, where he lived until his death in 1941. His reign marked a turning point in Siamese history and he became the last absolute monarch and first constitutional monarch of the Chakri dynasty, when the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) staged a coup d’état in 1932, demanding a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” The coup was bloodless and the king willingly signed the draft constitution on June 27, 1932, essentially giving away all his powers. But later, in 1933, he expressed his discontent with the way the new government was running the country. In 1934, he left the country on the premise of an eye operation, never to return. He formally abdicated on March 2, 1935.

King Prajadhipok

The Exhibitions

The first floor of the museum is where the temporary exhibition hall is found and contains articles related to the life of King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambhai Barni. On the second floor you will find exhibits such as the desk that King Prajadhipok used to sit at, a book cabinet – containing the books he read (I saw H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds) – and a collection of cigarette lighters. There is also a mini theatre which shows films about the king and films that he made such as “Magic Ring” which was shot on Pha-Ngan Island in 1929; ask museum staff for showing times. The third floor goes into detail about the signing of the Constitution, the 150th anniversary celebrations of Bangkok, which were organized by King Prajadhipok, and the story behind the coup.

It costs 40 baht to enter the museum, though I’ve been there three times and no one has ever asked me for my money. Bags must be left in the lockers in the entrance; keys are provided and a security guard sits by the door. The museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and there are guided tours every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

This little-known museum is a great alternative to the many crowded temples and palaces, and offers an interesting insight into the history of Thailand. Indeed, not far from the museum is Democracy Monument, which was constructed in 1939 to celebrate the coup d’état of June 24, 1932. After visiting this museum, you will have a clearer understanding of the significance of Democracy Monument, and how a country that had once bowed to the absolute power of monarchy, made its first tentative steps towards a constitution. Worth a visit and worth the 40 baht entrance fee; if they ask you for it.


Silpa Bhirasi: The man who sculpted the “Greats”

Silpha Bhirasi - The Italian sculptor who became a Thai citizen

The Thais are not especially well-known for honouring foreigners throughout their history and even today, the humble farang is made to feel like he is no more than a tolerated visitor. Of course, the same could be said of any country. It seems to be normal human behaviour to praise those who we feel most affiliated with; those who seem most like us. But the Thais, despite my opening statement, have shown amazing strength of character in honouring, tolerating and even “adopting” numerous foreigners as one of their own. One such person who the Thais owe a great debt to is Corrado Feroci.

Corrado Feroci - The sculptor who created some of Bangkok's most famous statues

Corrado Feroci was an Italian-born sculptor who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence from 1908 to 1915. He graduated with a 1st class honours and earned the title of Professor of Fine Arts. He was invited to Thailand in 1923 to teach Western sculpture at the Department of Fine Arts after Rama VI contacted the Italian government asking for a sculptor who could train Thai artists and craftsmen. Rama VI, who was quite a talented and artistic man himself, probably aspired to raise the standard of Thai art to that of international standards.

In 1929, Rama VI’s successor, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) commissioned the construction of a bridge that would span the Chao Phraya River. The Bridge was called Phra Buddha Yodfa Bridge (Memorial Bridge) and was built to mark the 150th anniversary of Bangkok. Rama VII ordered a large statue of Rama I to be built and placed on the pavilion at the foot of Memorial Bridge. The statue was designed by Prince Naris, president of the Royal Institute and director of the Department of Fine Arts, and the work of sculpting the statue was given to Feroci. In 1930, Feroci returned to his native Italy to supervise the moulding of the statue of Rama I. In 1932, Memorial Bridge was officially opened and the statue of Rama I was unveiled to the public. The king conferred the most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, 5th Class, upon Feroci for his work on the statue.

Rama I statue at Memorial Bridge

In the same year as the unveiling of the magnificent Rama I statue, Feroci cooperated with Phra Saroj Ratana Nimman, Head of Architecture Department, and established the School of Arts. In his first class, he had only seven students, many of whom went on to become famous artists. In 1942, the school was renamed the School of Fine Art and in 1943 became Silpakorn University, which is the name it still goes by today. He was a devoted teacher and expended large amounts of energy in transferring his knowledge to his students. He also wrote many books and research articles on both Thai and Western art such as: Theory of Colour (1943), Theory of Composition (1944), Thai Painting (1952) and An Appreciation of Sukhothai Art (1962). He was greatly loved and admired by his students and two years after his death, one of his students sculpted a statue of him, which still stands in the Faculty of Painting.

Silpa Bhirasi statue in Silpakorn University

In 1944, Corrado Feroci changed his name to Silpa Bhirasi and became a Thai citizen to avoid arrest by the occupying Japanese forces. He fell in love with Thailand and he made it his home for thirty-nine years. However, the long years abroad put a strain on his marriage to his Italian wife, Paola Angelini, and they separated amicably in 1949. He later married Malini, one of his students, and they lived happily together until the end of his life in 1962. In a final letter to Malini, his modest personality is revealed:

My dear Malini,

In case of my death, I wish to be cremated, but without any religious ceremony. I thank you with my soul for the many years of your affection which has verified the last part of my life. My best thought is to wish you a serene happiness reminding you always our long discussions about the complex difficulties of our life, particularly with regard [to] women. Please write to Romano and ask him to inform also Isabella & Dino of my passing away without regrets because I feel to have spent my life for something useful as a very modest servant of my art. Send them my love and my wishes for their prosperity and happiness. If the spirits have power to protect and bless the living ones, I will do [that] for you and this is my last hope.[1]

Among Feroci’s other works are some of Bangkok’s finest monuments. He sculpted many of the “Great” kings including: Rama VI, King Taksin and King Naresuan. He also executed the relief sculptures around the base of Democracy Monument. Because of his extraordinary legacy to the Thai people and Thai art scene, Corado Feroci has been dubbed “the father of modern Thai art.” In remembrance of this remarkable artist, September 15 – his birthday – is observed as Silpa Bhirasi Day. The Silpa Bhirasi Memorial Museum commemorates his life and is located in Silpakorn University. The museum includes nostalgic memorabilia such as paintings, sculptures, medals, old uniforms, a diary and an old camera. If you’re looking for somewhere a little different this coming Visaka Bucha Day, the museum is well worth a visit.

Democracy Monument


[1] Special Note : Professor Silpa Bhirasri’s Life and Works – Maneepin Phromsuthirak


New iPhone guided tour comes to Thailand

The cover page of the guided tour

For the last few months I have been lucky enough to be part of something big in the world of iPhone apps. In early January of this year, I discovered a call for writers who “know Thailand” on craigslist and, deciding that I had nothing to lose, I sent out an email expressing my wish to take the job. I didn’t expect to get a reply and so when I got an email saying that I seemed like the ideal candidate, I was a pleasantly surprised.

Even more surprising was the assignment I was given: I had to write a “historical” tour guide. Did I have to travel through time? Not quite.

Rama – an app designed by New York-based Crimson Bamboo – is available on the iPhone and puts a unique spin on the role of tour guides. The app harnesses the power of GPS, archival photographs and storytelling to create compelling tours that not only direct you to intriguing locations, but also inform and entertain you. Rama offers guided tours in a number of cities throughout the world and is looking to add new tours in the near future. This tour is the first for Thailand.

 “Bangkok in the 1930s” takes you through a decade of economic crisis, coup d’états, political intrigue and the birth of a new nation. The narrative is set against the backdrop of Bangkok’s most famous temples and palaces and the tour guides you to places such as the Annanta Sammakhom Throne Hall – where the People’s Party staged a coup d’état in 1932 and ousted King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).

If you’re planning a trip to Bangkok, this guided tour offers you the perfect opportunity to discover places that you may otherwise overlook, while learning about the country’s history in a compelling and interactive way.

“Bangkok in the 1930s” is available as an in-app purchase at $1.99 on Rama, an iPhone app found on iTunes: http://bit.ly/iTunesRama or through the developer’s website at http://www.crimsonbamboo.com.